Halfway through his ninth decade, Christchurch architect Peter Beaven is still designing houses, and still stirring things up. John Walsh talks to one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of New Zealand architecture.
Let’s talk about your growing up in Christchurch, and your family background.
What I can remember most strongly, and which has never left me really, is my two grandfathers. Both of them summarised the whole colonial ambition of settling in Christchurch – why it was done and the sort of people who did it. My grandfather Arthur Ward Beaven started the most successful agricultural engineering firm from just being the son of a yeoman farmer in Wiltshire. He was given £500 to come out to New Zealand and start a new life.
On the boat on the way out there was a Scottish engineer called Frank Andrews who’d had a lovely idea to make a chaff cutter which sharpened itself as it cut. The English, of course, not liking the Scots or any kind of good idea unless it came from the City of London or themselves, wouldn’t have it so he came out here. So Andrews and my grandfather teamed up and made the first chaff cutters of that type and they sold all over the Pacific. Two people, poor and dismissed from their native country, came here and did wonderfully.
That always seems to me one of the great models of the whole [settlement] idea and that’s why tradition in this city to me is the most revered and hallowed thing. The English and the Celtic cultures together made here a unique city, one of vast idealism really. Within 30 years Christchurch basically looked like Oxford or Cambridge… We forget that we were given here this magnificent heritage of an improved England. That’s what it was.
What about your other grandfather?
William Jamieson was even more interesting. He was the son of a joiner and when he came out to New Zealand he became one of the first big building contractors. He was a marvellous man. His study was full of architectural books and he designed his own house, Heather Lea, which looked over Hagley Park. It was brilliantly clever, and I can remember every inch of it. It was an Arts and Crafts house – huge trees, wonderful panelling, some of Voysey’s heart-shaped motifs. That was the old cultured New Zealand, you know, where culture and self-improvement were dominating concepts.
William Jamieson was the biggest builder at the turn of the century. He built the Auckland Post Office, just to make quite certain that everyone could see how famous he was. He had the first steam lathe for turning columns – he built the Basilica in Christchurch, the Catholic cathedral which is the finest classical building in New Zealand without question. My grandfather Beaven lived in an Arts and Crafts house designed by Collins and Harmon on a hundred acres on a hill looking right over the Pacific and the Southern Alps. Below was the estuary ebbing and flowing with the tide in the channels. I’ve always loved estuaries…
So, those two houses, and my grandfathers – distinguished, extraordinarily good looking, tall, and playing a large part in the community – and then Christ’s College. In my opinion Christ’s College is the most wonderful collection of buildings showing the span of architectural talent in the last hundred years, and none of it has been pulled down because the bourgeoisie, as we know, always hang onto the greatest value.
Now this is something that no-one has talked about – that there is the finest collection of collegiate buildings in Australasia and it is so composed, of course, because we’ve kept all the statements of our various ongoing architectural culture. That hasn’t been discussed, and one of the main reasons, of course, is that Miles Warren and I are in disagreement about architectural style.
You are in agreement about Christ’s College though.
Well, yes and no. Christ’s College has never been fully discussed as the most extraordinary set piece underlining how, in a new country, everything wonderful we’ve done should be kept. Why Miles and I have never discussed it I can’t think.
Which part of Christchurch did you grow up in?
I grew up in Papanui, just past St Andrew’s College.
What was Papanui like then? This was the 1920s?
I was born in ’25, so I first became conscious of architecture about ’27, I think, maybe earlier. Well, it was absolutely superb. It was so wonderful. The street was filled with everybody. Every class was there – a poor stonemason from Scotland, the father of the future Catholic bishop, the wealthy and the rich… It was the old New Zealand. Everyone was tolerant and belonged to each other because we were here.
There was a tram at the end of the road, made of wood. One side of it slid up to keep out the east wind going south and when you came north they slid the shutters up on the other side. It was the most subtle, clever equipage of made wood objects. At each end were glass boxes. My father used to say the glass boxes were for the civil servants and the aged. I think that probably applies now more than ever…
There was probably one car per block. I could hear cows and sheep at the end of the road where the farms were. There were creeks with eels. I could smell the bakery nearby, there was a man who chopped firewood and there were two little grocer’s shops. The tram at the other end went round a block of Edwardian shops where there was a church by [Benjamin] Mountfort, and everywhere there were trees and thick macrocarpa hedges.
I don’t know why, but no one has ever painted a happy picture of suburban Christchurch, and that’s how it was. It was the most idyllic world. We used to wait in the macrocarpa hedge, and past the hedge would go the various people thrown out of the pubs in the Square at six o’clock. Some would sing Irish songs, some Scottish as they marched forlornly or happily past the macrocarpa hedge.
We’d go down one weekend to my grandfather Beaven on the hill above the Pacific Ocean, and the other weekend we’d go to the other glorious huge Arts and Crafts house by Hagely Park. So I had this enormous upbringing and experience really… To get to school I’d bicycle along Papanui Road, and when I went to Christ’s – I left in ’42 – every part of the route was Victorian and Edwardian Arts and Crafts, and Classical. There wasn’t one modernist intervention.
Do you have siblings?
I’ve got two brothers. One went to the Harvard Business School – my father sent him there – and then spent 25 years of agony in big business round the world. After 25 years he said to me, ‘I can’t stand this any more’ and for the last eight years he’s been sailing up and down the coast of Australia in a 50-foot wooden yacht designed and built for one of the Rockefellers. He’s a different man… The other brother was a farmer, and then a kind of petty officer down at the Salvation Army – a marvellous, stentorian, parade ground man. He’s now the chief guide at the Cathedral.
How did you go at Christ’s College? Did you enjoy your time there, or did you just get through it?
Oh, I just put up with it. There were only 250 people there then and it was strictly divided according to class, but once you realise the English snobbery thing is only a veneer then you can laugh at it. It didn’t take me a minute to discover that the squattocracy who lived in the boarding houses were tall, not going to the war and largely entirely different beings from us in the day boy houses… I found the whole thing a game, of course – you know, when you were told to run round the park, what you did was hide under the Antigua Street bridge and just come back after 100 yards.
When I first went to Christ’s, I went to the lowest football team, and I left five years later captain of the lowest football team. I didn’t like cricket, although Lesley my wife says I’d make a marvellous fieldsman because of the way I run so well and wave my arms, so my father got me a little yacht and I spent the last two years at college sailing on the estuary. Christ’s College taught me hugely what the world was, that it was divided strictly and fallaciously, and secondly, that you could do what you liked as long as you did it with panache.
Which is a lesson well absorbed in your case, Peter.
Well, I’ve stuck to it without the slightest restraint but also don’t forget that the discipline of heritage and good architecture is a profound one which I’ve pursued longer than anyone I think.
Christ’s College has very good buildings but did they talk about them?
Not a breath. There was not the slightest suggestion that we were living in an extraordinarily brilliant occasion. Everybody was visually blind. And the thing is of course that people like me, although we didn’t know we would be so subliminally educated, we were. While I was there, one of the most profound things in my life occurred. An old boy from London had sent out a about a hundred huge prints of paintings by the great masters. I went into the classroom one day and suddenly right beside me was a Cezanne and above the headmaster’s head was part of the Sistine Chapel. Well, that to me was one of the most incredible revelations. Every classroom you went to, there was Degas, and Rubens and wonderful Rembrandt. Not one single person I’ve ever talked to has ever remembered that, but to any sensitive fellow…
Were you a sensitive fellow?
What does sensitive mean? I think I’ve always been open to everything I’ve found interesting, ironic, wry, clever… I am sensitive to nature, you know. I’m constantly aware of the glorious world that we were given. I feel a Platonic… I don’t know what the word is for a Christian who actually believes it’s all in nature waiting for you.
Yes, I’m probably a disciplined modern Pantheist.
Did you have a religious background?
No. It played no part, no part at all. Both my grandfathers had been religious and it’s the same old colonial thing, you know, the second generation had nothing to do with it. My mother and father set up the first nightclub in Christchurch and were sort of Twenties flappers… It’s been suggested that if I sometimes overstate things it’s because I was deprived when I was very young. My mother was supposed to have gone on a little jaunt with the fast bowler from a visiting MCC team. Well, this is a nice thought.
Did she come back?
Yes, of course. I’m just saying that she was an interesting woman, and labelled.
If you’re labelled in Christchurch I imagine the label sticks.
Never shifts. Never comes off.
When you were at high school did you think about becoming an architect?
No. At that time there was never any suggestion that you did anything after Christ’s College. You were just tipped out the other end and it was presumed that the privilege you were surrounded by was enough, so nobody ever talked about a professional future… There were no books on art in the Hare Memorial Library but the library itself was one of the finest works of architecture in New Zealand. It was Cecil Woods’ finest work – I must have known about it.
Anyway, I didn’t know what to do when I left school in the summer of ’42. I’d booked into the Navy but couldn’t go in for another year. I was out at Sumner walking up and down the beach wondering what to do, and I saw this tall elegant man with a floppy tie and interesting hat and clothes. He said, ‘Are you young Beaven? What are you going to do with yourself?’ I said I didn’t know, and he said, ‘Come to my office’. It was Paul Pascoe, the architect. I went in there, sat in his office and I knew in one minute that this was what I would like to do – wear that tie, wear that flowing hair, disport myself in an elegant smock, and play with a big white sheet of paper.
So that was a seminal encounter?
Oh, hugely. And of course it also taught me something else, in a way. I didn’t like all of Pascoe’s work – although his Arthur’s Pass chapel is wonderful – which I suppose was the first step in rejecting modernism.
Because Pascoe was one of the early modernists in Christchurch?
He was the first really, although it was amazing how at that time a number of other architects did modernist work. Humphrey Hall and Helmore and Cotterill did two or three modernist buildings. It’s not difficult to be a modernist – you just take a picture and draw over it.
We should get to the war, because that was obviously an important part of your life. For you, it seems, this was a world historical event that you didn’t want to miss.
That’s right. It was labelled the war, but that didn’t worry me. But first, I went up to the Architecture School in Auckland for about seven months – there were only about 18 of us in 1943… My father had not been allowed to go to university. When he came back from the First World War, his father wouldn’t let him, he wanted him to go straight into the family business. So when I said to my father, ‘I believe there’s a university in Auckland’ he said, ‘You must go’.
I was the first person from Christchurch to go to the School of Architecture in Auckland and, in a way, apart from any other factor, that’s probably the reason why I’ve gone on longer being a creative architect than anybody else. I started off unhampered by the disciplines of architects’ offices. Now there’s a lot to be said for that, but by going up there I immediately projected myself into the world of Vernon Brown and that marvellous Lippincott building, which was inspirational, as was the layout of the campus at that time.
Where did you live when you were in Auckland?
Oh, various places. I lived in Milford because there was a girl at the School of Architecture I loved deeply and she lived at Narrow Neck, so I had to catch the ferry every morning to go over and come back with her… But then I lived in Royal Court on Wynyard Street. It was a big old boarding house, and it was a wonderful place, full of decrepits from the war…
Anyway, I went to the war. The thing about the war, is that I learned that the world is the same everywhere really, that if you look at the vernacular world, the world has grown up out of culture and local customs – they all have the same impact. I was serving in landing ships, and we came down the Red Sea and I could see through my binoculars all the little ports along the way and they were absolutely enchanting…
The vernacular that has grown up out of use and function and desirability and the practical has always totally arrested me. It’s why I get so cross with modern buildings – they don’t reflect any of those things. I could go on about the war forever, it was the greatest pleasure I’ve had in my life really. I would never have been given so many lovely big toys to play with.
I remember being up the Irrawaddy River [in Burma]. The Irrawaddy has one of the swiftest currents in the world and I was in charge of the anchor. There were five landing ships, we were the front one and after I dropped the anchor we spent our usual night drinking gin and shouting and romping. In the morning the captain woke me up and said, ‘Come and have a look, Kiwi’. He pointed to all the ships, which were in front of us. He said, ‘Do you remember, last night they were behind us? You didn’t put the bloody anchor down properly.’ We’d dragged all night… That same day I got my first copy of The Architectural Review, brought up in the jolly boat.
You were in the British Navy, a very stratified institution. How did they treat you?
Oh, it was an absolute doddle, to use an English expression. The thing was I was always the only Kiwi wherever I was when I was training, and New Zealanders were held in the highest regard then. I had no trouble getting through everything. I flew through but then I always kept making gauche mistakes which made the English laugh, because they were either terrified by class or arrogantly stupid by position. If you were a colonial with a whimsical turn you had it made.
When the war finished, how did you get back to New Zealand?
I was demobbed in Singapore. We’d gone up the Bangkok River to pick up the men from the Burma railway. We were told to make quite certain they had no whisky and to just feed them gently and wait for the medics to tell us what to do. Another thing I learned in the war is that bureaucracy largely is a farce – although a very comfortable one – and it has to be, you can’t avoid it. There’s no way that all of us are going to do that sort of boring work.
Anyway, when we went up the Bangkok River to pick up those men, the whole river was covered with flowers – the East has got these marvellous symbolic gestures of beauty and grace. We were the first ship going up the river, and I was the foc’sle officer so I was the first person amongst the flowers. The Burma railway people came on board, but the Americans had been dropping food to them and they were all perfectly strong, and so were drunk the entire time on the ships.
This encounter with the East must have been intriguing, if not enlightening.
I’m glad you raised this because that time in the East taught me more than almost anything else. I realised then the hugeness of the world, the roundness of culture and the vastness of the talents that exist… I never forget going ashore at nights up the Irrawaddy. The village life, you know, was absolutely riveting. I’m talking now of the original old life, and I saw it in Japan, too, before it was ruined – well, not ruined but made modern. To see little kids with Burma cheroots and grandmas tottering along holding each other, and the way that every shop and house was open right through its full depth. The streets were just magic…
So, I was alone in Singapore, and couldn’t find a way back. There were no New Zealand troops there so nobody gave a damn – everyone was going back to Europe. But I ran into a couple of New Zealand guys and we went and had a beer. They’d come over to get three New Zealanders who had died in Changi camp and could only find two. So I got back to New Zealand as the third coffin. What I’m saying is that the war was a good time for some.
Did you know you were going to return to architecture, and the School of Architecture?
Oh, yes, I was always dedicated and still am, so I came back to the School of Architecture. Everyone has talked about it forever but it was a marvellous time. It was a time of self-discovery, really. We were in those temporary sheds up on Symonds Street. Vernon Brown was ornamental but I never found him very important. We had people who had come back from the war and been colonels, and Bill Wilson and The Group – Bruce Rotherham, who was a very quiet, reticent fellow, and a very strong, powerful woman called Barbara Parker, who I always thought was the big engine in The Group. Bill [Wilson] was one of those utterly captivating people, but I didn’t join The Group. I felt that it was a sort of colonised Bauhaus, and I wasn’t taken in by Vernon Brown.
Did you talk to members of The Group about why you wouldn’t join them?
I found a copy of Architectural Forum which had a huge and beautiful coverage of Frank Lloyd Wright, so I just went round the place saying, ‘This is it. What are you all doing? What is all this crap you’re all on about? Look at these houses – the Taliesins’. I haven’t been to either of them, actually, but they knocked me flat as creative expressions, and the way that one might live ideally.
Were people teaching themselves at the School? That’s the impression one can get.
It’s exactly what it was. We taught each other. I won’t name the teachers but, no, we taught each other… There was a fervour and a thinking going on everywhere, but I was a romantic I suppose, and a person who’s naturally drawn to the organic and the historic and the Victorian and the Arts and Crafts.
I was the only one. Is it also that you are a contrarian, Peter?
Well, it’s forced on me – I really don’t wish to be. I mean that. It’s just that we live in a very strange society. I remember it as an ideal society up until 1984. This architectural ensemble of the idealistic early Christchurch is unique, and our welfare state was unique. [New Zealand suffragette] Kate Sheppard was my great-aunt… Dennis Glover and Albion Wright [founder of Pegasus Press] were my friends. We used to go sailing around the Peninsula together.
Christchurch up to 1984 was very tolerant. You could be eccentric – by eccentric I mean in a sense learned – and be your own man, an individual. Old money in Christchurch was intolerant but never dismissive. Now money has become uncouth and damaging and takes over in all our lives. We never talked about money. All the years of my life until I went to England in ’74 not a bloody breath would anyone spend on mortgages.
When you finished at the School of Architecture did you consider staying in Auckland?
Oh, no. I would never stay in Auckland. Auckland is for Aucklanders.
So what did you come back to?
You had to go and work for an architect for two years, so I went and worked for an architect and after six weeks I went in and said, ‘I’m leaving, I can’t stand it here, I’ve learnt nothing.’ I marched out and my father, who was a very good man, said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said I thought the only thing to be done is to go and build. He said, ‘I’ll tell you what, we want to expand the fowl house we’ve got over at Diamond Harbour and make it into a weekend house’.
For the next 18 months I went over there on and off, and with a builder built a house for the local milkman, extended my father’s house and did a house for a retired magistrate. I thought I’d better become a member of the Institute [of Architects] so I went along to a panel of local architects. There were three of them saying, ‘You’re supposed to be qualified now, Peter. You haven’t worked for any of us.’
They asked me about what I’d been doing. I told them about the houses, and the carpenter in Diamond Harbour, and the old French stonemason who said his throat got so dusty building one of the houses of Charteris Bay stone that he could only build for three days and then had to spend two days in the pub at Teddington. We had an hour and at the end they said, ‘Peter, we wish we’d done the same,’ so I became a member of the Institute. It’s a lesson, of course. If you hold onto your own direction and don’t be over-awed it’ll be fine.
So then you started working with a Christchurch practice?
So then I went to Japan. I lived with an old man who’d been in Japan for 15 years. He lived in a village on the coast just below Yokohama. This was 1951. I was there for four months. I used to walk from the railway station to his house on the beach and I walked through paradise. Every path, every stone, every tree, everything was composed. Nature and beauty to the Japanese is synonymous, you know. I never forgot that. Everywhere you would come to a stop end. It was like [Gordon] Cullen’s The Concise Townscape , that wonderful book that I believe in so strongly.
Everything was that placement of things… The whole idea of everything being beautiful was a knock-out. I saw all the other wonderful things of course – the garden at the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, the Katsura Palace… Oh, another thing I’ve never forgotten was being on the cargo ship coming through the Sea of Japan. It was a golden morning, and all the little islands were built up with little purple roofs rising up. The ship threaded its way through the islands with little houses on them. It was probably the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
It’s not so much the forms of Japanese architecture that influenced you but the sensibility that you found there?
That’s exactly right. In those houses on the islands you can see they take care with everything, in their own way, each time. There is that Japanese total sensibility of landscape and art together… The Lyttleton Tunnel building – there’s some Japanese structure in there, the timber structures of Japan put into concrete. That’s the only overt evidence.
Is the Tunnel building a modernist building?
I think it defies most labels. I think that’s good. Well, I don’t think it is modernist really. Modernist ideology is something that I’ve never been interested in. The ideas of social technological abstraction, theoretical abstraction and sculptural abstraction that Corbusier threw about, none of that I go along with at all. The Tunnel Building started off deliberately by being Canterbury’s fifth ship. Everyone of course wished to be on the first four and it was obvious the ships weren’t big enough so I provided them with a fifth, and that’s captured the imagination of most people. [Auckland architect] Peter Middleton said it was the most amusing building he’d ever seen.
How did you get that job?
Oh, well, architecture is mostly patronage. My father’s friend was the Chairman of the Tunnel Authority. Well, it was a bit deeper than that. The Ministry of Works were told by the people of Canterbury that although they were engineering the tunnel they had to get a local architect to do the control building at the entrance.
The choice came down to Miles Warren and me… and the last kick whether it was Warren or me came because my father knew the chairman. But any architect has stories like that. That’s the way it always is… The Tunnel Building is functional but it’s extravagant in lots of ways. There was a need for extravagance, though – everybody wanted the building to have importance and meaning because we’d been waiting for the tunnel for 50 years.
OK, so you’re not a modernist architect but if you look at the wider modernist programme there are some elements there that seem congruent with your belief system. Before it became detached from any sort of social agenda modernism did have a progressive or egalitarian cast to it. It set itself against the privileges of the ancien regime. Of course, I also recognise that, temperamentally, you are a Cavalier, not a Roundhead.
Well, the modernist architectural agenda was a powerful one… Technology and social aspirations were all built into it, and then Corbusier poeticised it with a whole lot of models and led us all on to desperate troubles. Of course there is a modernist… no, I use the word contemporary rather than modernist. In the contemporary world materials, rules, laws, social behaviour, the physical structure of making things, materiality, craftsmanship, all these things have kept changing.
Modernism now has become part of the computer imaging of architecture which you see everywhere in the flat roofs which you yourself publish unendingly. That is an extension of modernism in a way because it’s detaching buildings from their context, their context of history. I don’t think this is nostalgia, but an awareness of the picturesque beauty and absolute habitability of the old neo-Gothic buildings of Christchurch, for example. They’re beautiful buildings to be in, to experience whatever you’re doing. They’re wonderful to walk through.
You don’t see them as being incompatible with modern life?
No. They’re absolutely, critically part of it. All of us have to live with history. You know, traditions, background, religion. You’ve only got to see the Christchurch Arts Centre on the weekend. It’s the most crowded part of the city.
You talk about the ‘other tradition’. What do you mean by that?
I just mean a deeper function. All the functions that architects must do, express, find. I mean you look further than just the fashionable models which exist everywhere in New Zealand at the moment. We’re drowning in fashion with these buildings, houses with flat roofs and glass walls. There’s no void and solid in New Zealand architecture now.
It often seems to me that those people who feel uncomfortable with modernism but don’t want to seem completely reactionary, the architect they always cite is Aalto.
I like that.
Which you do, don’t you? Aalto is an important figure for you.
Well, now we come onto something that’s very interesting. Most of those people say that as an apology, of course. People used to use Aalto as a touchword, as something to paste up – ‘Look, I’m alright’, like a slogan on a T-shirt. They try to put themselves in the comfortable mainstream but they don’t know a bloody thing about Aalto. It’s interesting you say that because to me Aalto represents the humanising of modernism.
Now everyone says that, but when you go and look at his work you either find it boring, like a lot of people do, or you find – like I do – that it is utterly fascinating. Here is a modernist person doing contemporary architecture which repeats itself, but each time repeats itself in response to the terrain and the locality of Finland… Aalto to me is a person who, like the Japanese, has followed meticulously through to the last doorknob and hinge and rebate. Light falling, shifts of material – everything has been worked out, just like that landscape in Japan. He does that. Now no modernist work really does that. In a way it’s getting rid of itself in minimalism.
I’ve been to Finland three times and each time I realised who Aalto was so exactly. He saw Finland in visual terms like the Japanese, translated it into buildings which are not modernist in any sense. They have nothing to do with Corbusier or any of the modernists, and they’re modelled also by the fact that Finland is separate from mainland Europe. Everywhere he went – to Spain or France – he always went for a specific thing, something to fill out his Finnish need. He didn’t become absorbed in any other culture. He just took what he wanted.
I’ve thought a lot about Aalto. I sat in his office once for two days. He was in America getting drunk, catching the train with Léger and they were so happy and drunk on the train going up to Harvard to give a lecture they finished up at the terminus 100 miles beyond… I’ve read everything about Aalto. He was always on the edge of being alcoholic and dangerously irreverent but his wife brought him back. Well, the Finns are like that. I was on a Finnish ferry once, the drunken shouting and screaming, the punch-ups and carry on, my God.
So, Aalto… I think he was most interesting of the modern architects. Well, Frank Lloyd Wright, of course, is the seminal figure but he’s so unique. He’s like Walt Whitman and Thoreau – he’s an American separate. You can’t really use him. I tried to use Frank Lloyd Wright, but only once in one little house and then I realised that he wasn’t an architect in the sense that any of rest of us are.
But Aalto is a person who you can use and think about forever, and so is [Gunnar] Asplund, to a slightly lesser degree. And so then we come to the most wonderful modern building I’ve seen, the one which stopped me in my tracks the most – the Woodland Cemetery  in Stockholm by Asplund. There’s no question in my mind that is the supreme experience in modern architecture. That’s modernism in the sense of eliminating history and yet retaining all the meanings and feelings and spatial understandings of a historical position like a graveyard in Stockholm.
I went up there once in the daytime and once in the evening. You get out of the bus. On the left are some columns buried in a wall, in front of you is a road that rises slightly, and just to the left of the road you can glimpse the great cross. Then in front of you is a rim of trees. You go towards this, and you come to the top of this road where the stone wall dwindles to be level with the road as the road rises. You go left up a path which winds up the slope to the great cross. Then you come out on the flat and there’s Asplund’s huge atrium with the light pouring through the central hole. You look through the columns – the columns are just simple modernism, but they’re chamfered and made of the right height stone. Everything is in the right place, every single thing. It’s just like Japan. If I could shut my eyes and say to myself, ‘Where would you like to go?’ I’d say, ‘Straight to the Woodland Cemetery’, and that, maybe, is where I’d stop.
This command of ensemble is why you like the Arts Centre here, the old Canterbury University site?
That’s right, exactly.
And why you would prefer it to be left as it is?
Yes. Here we managed, in a poor lonely colony on the other side of the world, an ensemble of the sort of excellence that I’m talking about all the time. We actually did it here, in 20 years… Mountfort reinterpreted the culture he came from. He was a well-trained person, one of the good Gothic revival people. He jumped ashore showing the natural vividness that good architects have. Mountfort interpreted local materials and modified the neo-Gothic into forms which carried the spirit of the Gothic. It’s beautifully proportioned, it’s as if you’re looking at a Ruskinian abstract painting. Mountfort was remarkable, and so was [Samuel] Hurst Seager – he’s the one who really planned the old University… All this whole culture here, and so to damage it… That’s why I’m so bloody angry at Miles Warren and Ian Athfield. I respect them both, of course, but for them to attack me for wanting to save these buildings…
Which brings us to another point. There’s no avoiding the simultaneous presence in Christchurch of you and Miles Warren, nor the competition for the Christchurch Town Hall which was an important competition to win, and lose. There’s a perception that you left Christchurch because you lost that competition. Is that true?
I’ve been accused of that lots of times but, no, it wasn’t the real reason. I found the Town Hall a keen fight and I enjoyed it. Miles was bound to win. He had the best office, he had a superb design office, the best graduates… Christchurch in the ’60s and ’70s was a marvellous place, really, and there are other architects who never get mentioned but should be. Hall and McKenzie did the Registry Building at the University which is absolutely outstanding. Trengrove and Marshall did those two huge buildings at Lincoln University which are Corbusier astonishments set in the flat plain of Ellesmere Lake. Those two firms in particular did extraordinarily good work and never seemed to be mentioned…
Miles would naturally dominate because he wanted a big office. After he won the Town Hall he decided he would be the office of the country. But he won the Town Hall perfectly simply because it was a tangible, clever plan, a classical plan, put together beautifully of the local materials, beautifully built and beautifully detailed. It’s a marvellous building… My design was much more romantic, of course. It was like the Port Hills in roof outline, and Charoun and Aalto, and it was published in The Architectural Review. The article had Miles’ design on one side and mine on the other – it said ‘Good manners versus fun’, or something. In fact I was the one who was asked to give the speech for the Institute of Architects congratulating Miles for winning the Town Hall competition. It’s all Christchurch fun, you know. I’ve never taken it seriously at all.
So you went to London. When was that – the late ’70s?
I first went to London to do the urban design course at the Architectural Association in 1967. That was the year of swinging London. It was utterly wonderful. The New Zealand dollar was equal to the English pound, and I sold my little wooden yacht and we lived for a year in Hampstead… We had this wonderful townhouse. Just above us was a marvellous old woman who was the widow of Lutyen’s architect who supervised New Delhi. We got this beautiful flat because we came into the land agent straight after an Afghan pop group had been told they couldn’t have it.
London is always just wonderful really. I came back to New Zealand and spent a year and a half trying to push urban design. I went to places like Hastings and the Wairarapa and Queenstown, trying to talk about urban design. But of course it’s a myth in a capitalist society, where the land is entirely controlled by greed. Urban design is the control of land for the public use and betterment. That doesn’t come into the capitalist agenda. Put that in…
It’s all going in. Seven or eight years later you returned to London.
What happened was quite straightforward really. I had a very good partnership with Burwell Hunt for about seven years. In that time we did Queen Elizabeth II Park and the Chateau on the Park Hotel in Christchurch, Habitat Housing [Thorndon Mews] in Wellington, a hotel in Queenstown. Then the partnership fell apart, and I’d got to the point of getting absolutely bone tired of Christchurch.
I’d been through all the Civic Trust fights, saving Mona Vale [historic house], saving the Arts Centre… I had had one or two other disturbances of a marital and romantic kind which had thrown me a bit, and work dried up, and I just ran out of who I was at that time and who I wanted to be. I thought, ‘I can’t cope with this,’ and I just left… I went to London and just trusted on my wits. I had $5,000 and some clothes and a connection with an architect over there… I just went because I wanted a change.
You weren’t some neophyte Kiwi going on his OE. You were 50, and starting again. That was a big thing.
Yes, but it seemed to be the obvious thing. I think it was a good thing, because I loved London… I built some buildings there, and did two master plans for self-build villages, in Hackney and at Limehouse. If I’d stayed to build those – they rang me up and wanted me to go back – I’d have been famous. I had a house I was going to build on the Thames. It would be worth a couple of million now. It was a different world.
You had your own practice there?
Yes, all the time. I never worked for anyone.
Where were you living?
Much of the time in Holman Hunt’s studio in Melbury Road, then Soho and Hamsptead – pretty good addresses, really.
And where was your practice based?
It was just at the end of my bed, on the drawing board. That was alright… In London there was an understanding of who you were more than here. In New Zealand it’s what you purport to be in, what the evidence is, but over there it was much more who you were and how you appeared – just your own presence and personality. It’s quite different. As I say, what I learned in the Navy all those years ago is that if you did the work and made them laugh, the English loved you. And I loved England – the context, the history, the traditions, the Gothic architecture.
Why did you come back?
It’s not a question I can fairly answer, actually because I still don’t know… There was a delay in the work I was doing, I had an emotional relationship of some intensity which fell apart, and I suddenly felt that call of New Zealand, that essential place that you can still manipulate… Then I read three books. I read Man Alone, that wonderful book by John Mulgan. He committed suicide in a Greek hotel. He couldn’t decide – he respected the vigour of the New Zealanders and the freshness and strength of them in the Second World War, but he couldn’t give up the urbane culture of Oxford, so he just committed suicide.
I also read Katherine Mansfield, and was deeply aware that when her brother was killed in the First World War her writing became much more New Zealand oriented, and it was better then. I also looked at Frances Hodgkins. The times she painted most brilliantly was when she was in Spain, in colour and brightness and warmth and away from the cold closeness of England. Those were the three things really that made me think… I wasn’t doing enough. My relationship had broken down. The work was held up and then suddenly I got the opportunity of two jobs in New Zealand so that brought me back here.
It seems that you have an intense attachment to this place, to Christchurch and Canterbury, but then you recoil from it sometimes. Does it get too much sometimes? Do you know what I mean? Yes, I do. What I think it is, John, is that you get disappointed here. You’re disappointed at the failure of people to see the obvious. Things are not as I think they could be. The promises of my grandfathers don’t seem to be borne out, particularly now, of course, when what’s going on in Christchurch at the moment I find desperately sad and disappointing. But that’s just my view. I’m not going to be antagonistic. Well, no, but your place in your profession is interesting because you seem to be of the establishment – in your upbringing and education, at least – and also scathing of it. I know you have misgivings about the direction of the Institute of Architects, for example, which has acknowledged your career with its Gold Medal. There’s an ambivalence, isn’t there, in your attitude towards the powers that be?
I think that’s fair comment. That’s perfectly true. You cannot have anarchy and you can’t have revolution. I’ve read all the books – the Russian civil wars, my favourite reading – and the idea of sweeping things away and making a complete newness is wrong, utter madness. All that I’m saying about context and history and the whole bringing together of things is not about disruption. To me the modernist movement was a disruption of a natural evolution…
When I seem to be at variance with the profession it’s only because I would like improvement. I put up the idea that the Institute should set aside a lot of its energy to be a learned society, that it be seen as a centre of understanding, of leaky homes, of energy, green issues, urban design, all these things, but it has been captured by the new neo-capitalist regime, and by large firms who now can have the libraries with all the necessary modern jargon. So the Institute is tending towards more of a corporate identity… I feel a bit angry about. But I don’t think you could say that wanting to save the Arts Centre is disruptive. I’m simply saying that if we respect our history more we’ll know ourselves more.
Because you were never a modernist you were spared the necessity of becoming a post-modernist.
Well, I didn’t have to be. Post-modernism is just a way of trying to make the work more compatible to people, but, well, [Philip] Johnson and all those people decorating their skyscrapers like Chippendale furniture – it can go on being silly to the end of its era. I’ve never been a post-modernist. My buildings grow out of the people and the locality. They’re very organic, and they’re very much part of why they’re made there.
Is it too fanciful to see, especially in your bigger buildings, a sort of neo-Gothic influence as well – their verticality, for example, the way the gaze is drawn up?
You’re on to something there, but again that comes out of context and locale. You don’t need a very good eye to see if you walk around Christchurch that the great roofs and chimneys stand on the plain beautifully, particularly with the tall English trees. I think to disrupt this bright sky with a proper roof is infinitely better than just with a flat roof and a seagull and a television aerial.
It is extraordinary that at 84 you are still practising architecture everyday. What keeps you going?
What keeps me going is a very simple thing – that I’ve still got creative work. Well, the word creative seems a bit pretentious, but work that I’m fully engaged with and delighted by. If that stopped, I’d stop. I’ve got a whole lot of fall-back things to do. I’ve got a little wooden yacht to sail round the peninsula, and I love sketching, and I love classical music, and walking and bicycling around, and books, but I just want to stop dead if I’m not doing something interesting.
You’re still getting commissions.
There’s still work coming in, and good work, proper work.
Where do the commissions come from? How do people find you?
They find me solely out of the work I’ve done in the past. They’ve seen my work, it stands quite outside fashion.
And you still have a profile in the city.
Well yes, but I don’t make it. It’s just that people ring me up and I take a stance.
Well, when the public thinks of Christchurch architects they probably still think of you and Miles Warren.
Miles and I are simply there as sort of symbolic gestures, really. The real world is quite separate from us… Miles is trying to put his large epitaph in the Arts Centre and I’m trying to stop him. That’s what we’ve done all these years, nothing special about it.
On a note of personal aesthetics, every time I see you, you’re in the same clothes. Do you have a uniform?
Yes, I do. I thought that life is difficult enough… You’re right, but if you look at my clothes they’re not foolish. There’s always a white shirt which helps the aging throat and chin and this jumper here is not just a navy jumper, it’s the famous North Sea Guernsey, and then these are the white RM Williams jeans, and these are the white merino socks made in Timaru, and the shoes are interesting. I think the company has gone out of business but I’ve got three pairs of them. I wore these clothes since I arrived in England. I realised in England that if you wore white trousers you were immediately colonial because the English haven’t got time to wash their trousers and so wear black.
So this has been it for years?
I’ve not changed this at all. What’s the point? There are too many other things to do to be wasting time choosing clothes.
Are you still that schoolboy who hid in the macrocarpa hedge?
Well, we all must be, mustn’t we? Otherwise life would be incredibly boring. No, I find everyday new, I still do. In fact I make treats everyday, that’s what I do. I go and get the mail twice a week, so there’s a treat there. There’s a book of Virginia Woolf I want to read. I’ve ordered a couple of books at the library, then I’ll bicycle and probably meet Lesley somewhere… I see everyday as a little excitement that’s going to happen. It’s like stepping stones in the Ryoanji Garden – stepping stones to pleasure through the day.
Your relationship with Lesley is obviously hugely important.
Absolutely critical. I couldn’t survive without her really. The thing is that most of my companions are dead. All the people that I loved and had such fun with, all those old artists and writers and people I knew in Sumner, all dead or become quarrelsome and repetitive, and young people are now so buried in financial tortures that they’re not very free… I haven’t got any money really, enough to be happy with. Like me Lesley holds totally to the view of old New Zealand, the culture that we had.
Do you think that you romanticise about how New Zealand was?
I can say utterly John that I do not romanticise. My memories are so strong. Most people of my age, of course, wouldn’t have as strong a pictorial memory. I can see the streets. I can see the people moving, how they were dressed, what cars they drove, what it was like to go down to the old Gothic railway station and what it was like in the Square. There never was evidence of poverty. There were poorer people, but there was not evident poverty like there is today, and there was that magical thing of equality then… There was sense that we were none of us too separate.
Until the ’70s full employment was the criterion. That was the heart of the matter – full employment and the fact that we made as much as we could of our own. A state house was, I think, eighty per cent made in New Zealand. These are huge issues to me – moral, ethical and social issues that now are simply not addressed at all, in my opinion. Why should I read on a Saturday morning about the billionaires in this country? Who gives a stuff? I am strongly of the feeling that probably nobody alive at 84 now would have such a clear visual picture of what New Zealand used to be like. In those years there was a grandeur about New Zealand. I mean that… It’s just insane reading all this bloody propaganda about how dull New Zealand was then.
You’re going to keep on for a while aren’t you?
I don’t see anything to stop me. I don’t want to be discourteous, but when you’re designing a house do you still feel in control of all the elements that you have to be in control of to complete a project? Oh yes, it’s not a problem. You see, we only work within the old ways. We hardly use new materials at all. We use Oamaru stone veneer, timber weatherboards… And most of the new by-laws that have come out are common sense really.
There’s a lot more documentation needed now.
Yes, of course, but what the councils are looking for is to be safe… I feel sorry for the councils, actually. In that leaky home business of course council officers couldn’t be expected to suddenly become day-by-day inspectors of buildings. The fact that the Labour Government set up a scenario to look for blame about the leaky buildings is absolutely bloody scandalous. What really was going on was that the 1984 change opened up the whole thing to shonky money, shonky developers, shonky builders. They clambered on to putting stucco on timber frames to put up the cheapest bloody buildings and now because they’ve all made their money, buggered off, gone bankrupt or disappeared the whole bloody scenario has landed on the council.
The Institute should have got up and said some things. It’s harder for the smaller firms now than it has ever been, and yet this is in the new capitalist liberal choice game, which of course is nonsense. As far as us coping, no, there’s no problem because we simply always work with the builder and work in the traditional patterns… Trust, in the end, is what building is about and the whole idea of building is nonsense if the builder is not responsible for his building and the architect is not responsible to the person who’s commissioning it.
You’ve chosen the right career, haven’t you? Architecture is what you should have done?
I never had any doubt. I was a natural architect. My grandfather was a builder. He wanted to be an architect. I grew up in the whole surroundings I’ve talked to you about. I was given a very good inner eye, you see. All my buildings I can see inside my head. I can walk through them like a computer walks through. I don’t know how many architects can do that. The trouble with the profession is they never really talk about what being an architect feels like.
Well, what does it feel like?
Oh, it’s a marvellous feeling. It’s the most privileged profession on earth. I mean here you are with an eye to enjoying the world, with an ear to hear properly, with a feeling for touch, with a delight in moving through light and space and air, and then to deal with builders. In the end, the builders are what make the whole thing wonderful. I’ve always believed that the builder, out in the cold and the wet in the morning, is the person you must totally respect.
A builder wants to know an answer so he can get on and you’ve got to give him that answer, and it doesn’t matter how complex a building is. These buildings of mine in this article are very complex but all the builders say to me that they want to do another one because they felt they were with me and they could see what I was trying to do and I could see their problems.
Of course, bespoke architecture is a minority pursuit. It’s out of the reach of most people.
There’s nothing you can do about that. The Arts and Crafts people found that. They set up with ideals for the people but finished up with the wealthy. That’s not to say you can’t try… Actually, I am going to try to prove that it’s possible to build modestly and cheaply with a little house for ourselves. It’s a little site under the Port Hills. I’ve talked to the builder, it’s going to cost very little money and it’s going to be sustainable and its going to be beautiful and its going to be just cheap – no more than an ordinary spec house. I’ll prove that it can be done, and it might be the last thing I prove.